What Has Changed About Police Brutality In America, From Rodney King To Michael Brown

Protesters marching in August after the death of Michael Brown. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLIE RIEDEL
Protesters marching in August after the death of Michael Brown. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLIE RIEDEL

Amadou Diallo. Rodney King. Timothy Thomas. Looking at where we are today in the weeks after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, it can feel like nothing has changed in the way we police the police.

Many things haven’t. Juries acquitted police. Cops got their jobs back. And brutality happened again.

Some things have gotten worse. Like police militarization.

But some things have gotten better, or are still moving toward reform in the wake of a prominent brutality incident. A history of these incidents reveals that some major recent police reforms got their start after highly publicized episodes of police violence. But it was only after years or decades and dogged, persistent community-building that some progress started to manifest.

Rodney King, 1991, Los Angeles

Videotape by a bystander captured five officers pummeling Rodney King with batons more than 50 times as he struggled on the ground outside his car. The recording immediately sparked outrage, but anger magnified when the officers who beat King were acquitted by a jury the following year. The acquittal triggered three days of violent riots during which at least 53 people died — and created immense momentum for reform. The cops in that case were ultimately held accountable, when federal prosecutors took up the case and secured convictions of four officers. And by some measures, the LAPD was transformed in the two decades that followed.


Los Angeles was the original militarizer of police, even before the federal government started handing out left-over or used weapons, and before the height of the War on Drugs.

“The LAPD was the godfather of that kind of militaristic response,” said John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Joe Domanick, author of a forthcoming book on LAPD reforms and the West Coast Bureau Chief for the Crime Report.

This is a very systemic problem in just about every community throughout the United States.

Los Angeles was forced to scale back in some ways after the riots, partially as a result of the Christopher Commission, created in response to the King beating to develop recommendations for reform. But initially, few of the Commission’s recommendations were adopted by the city. “The Christopher Commission recommendations laid a foundation but weren’t successful in bringing about reform,” Domanick said.

One of the most significant reforms that did come out of the Commission was ending the policy of lifetime terms for police chiefs. The police chief who presided during that period and had overseen an era of increased militarization at the Los Angeles Police Department, Daryl Gates, was forced to resign. And thereafter, lifetime terms were over.


In the intervening years, the city took advantage of its prerogative to hire chiefs for five-year terms and then bring in someone new, in a series of chiefs who instituted some change but failed to alter the culture. Domanick said that changed when Bill Bratton became chief more than ten years later in 2002 and instituted what is known as community policing. Underlying this approach is the idea that police can rarely solve public safety problems alone, and require the input of various stakeholders to come up with solutions that might be resolved by social services or other measures instead of a heavy police hand. Bratton was hired as a reformer chief, after a series of incidents of corruption emerged known as the Rampart scandal. “He started to make a dent in the culture of occupying force,” said Domanick, whose forthcoming book is titled, Blue: The Ruin and Redemption of the LAPD.

When Bratton arrived, the stage was set for real change because of a few other intervening developments. Five years after King’s death, the city finally instituted a recommendation to create an independent inspector general to review the Department. In 1994, Congress passed provisions in the Crime Control Act meant to address police misconduct in a more systematic way, partially on the momentum of the Diallo beating. One provision gave the Department of Justice the power to bring civil suits against local police departments that exhibited a “pattern and practice” of excessive force or other constitutional violations, and the Department used that power to enter into a settlement known as a consent decree with Los Angeles.

This provision is perhaps among the most far-reaching remedies for holding entire police management structures accountable. Typically, Justice Department investigations that find constitutional violations result in agreements known as “consent decrees” that avert litigation by agreeing to federal monitoring and reforms. Common reforms include changes to police training, stronger mechanisms for complaints against officers, and improved supervision. A Vera Institute study of the first consent decree in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, found that use of force incidents declined after the consent decree ended, and that the city largely succeeded in meeting DOJ goals, but that citizens still perceived police as sometimes using excessive force, particularly against minorities.

It was in executing his city’s consent decree that Bratton transformed the LAPD. “It is like night and day,” Jeff Schlanger, who was hired to monitor the LAPD in 2001, told NBC News. As in Ferguson, what was most lost after the Los Angeles riots is what is known as “police legitimacy” — community trust in the police that underlies all of their work. Bratton instituted an era of communication and respectful interaction between individuals and police, creating a department that reflected the community and building relationships with community leaders. He even demonstrated some inclination for holding officers accountable. After a violent police response to 2007 immigration rallies in McArthur Park, Bratton announced immediate investigations and several officers were eventually demoted or fired.

But many things remained unresolved. For one thing, the mechanisms for policing the police didn’t improved much. A Human Rights Watch report noted that “at risk” LAPD officers who frequently use significant force continued to act with impunity, and officers were not frequently punished for misbehavior, either internally or by the courts. For another, some tactics embraced by Bratton have created their own set of hostilities with minority communities, as a result of policies that see targeting low-level offenses in high-crime areas as key to thwarting larger crime, Domanick said.

When this policy is not implemented with constant rigor, these police stops can also lead to unnecessary police violence and even death, as in the case of Ezell Ford, shot while reportedly laying on the ground after a routine police stop for still-undisclosed reasons.

Amadou Diallo, 1999, New York City

Plainclothes officers from the New York Police Department shot street vendor Amadou Diallo just outside his Bronx apartment building after they mistook his wallet for a gun. These officers, too, were acquitted at trial.

Stop and frisk was actually getting worse, not better.

Then-police Commissioner Howard Safir instituted some changes after weeks of protest, including adding more minority officers to the special “Street Crimes” unit whose officer had shot Diallo and requiring all officers in the unit to wear uniforms.


But Darius Charney with the Center for Constitutional Rights said these fixes were nothing more than cosmetic, and lamented that the city initiated nothing like the Christopher Commission to reform itself. Weeks later, his organization honed in on what was perceived as the real issue uncovered by the shooting — the aggressive over-use of police stops. CCR filed a lawsuit to force reform, triggering a campaign against stop-and-frisk overuse in the NYPD that is still continuing.

At the time of the police shooting, the overwhelming police presence in some minority-heavy communities was a revelation to the general public. CCR’s lawsuit sought data on the numbers and types of stops. For years, production of this data was delayed even after the City Council passed a data collection law. But in 2006, outrage once again bubbled up when Sean Bell was killed by undercover cops in the wee morning hours of his wedding day, and the New York Civil Liberties Union compelled the city to release the data.

What this data revealed was that “stop-and-frisk was actually getting worse, not better,” Charney said. The number of police stops had increased more than five-fold over the course of just five years, and they were just as racially skewed as they had ever been. With facts finally in hand, CCR filed a second lawsuit that resulted in a long-awaited victory when a federal judge held last year that the New York Police Department had engaged in unconstitutional racial profiling.

Even now, the court has not yet enforced that order as the police unions hold up final resolution by attempting to intervene on the appeal that Mayor Bill de Blasio has already dropped. But using the momentum of that litigation, advocates were also able to successfully campaign for new city legislation to hold police accountable. One new bill creates an inspector general to oversee NYPD. Another allows citizens to sue the police department for profiling not just based on race but also sexual orientation, religion, housing status, and other discriminatory categories.

“We have been able to I think working in tandem with advocates and organizers outside of the courtroom really make meaningful change,” Charney said of the city’s progress.

But progress hasn’t solved many things yet. In the weeks before Brown’s death, police killed Eric Garner using an illegal chokehold, after they stopped him for suspected sale of untaxed cigarettes. That death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner.

Police accountability is still wanting in New York, with a citizen review board whose recommendations for officer discipline are often ignored by the police commissioner, and no neutral mechanism for prosecuting police. “We for many years have really pushed for a state-level agency … to prosecute crimes for municipal level police officers,” Charney said, citing the inherent bias prosecutors have in favor of the police.

And as a Twitter campaign gone wrong in April demonstrated, NYPD still hasn’t quite come to terms with its tainted reputation.

Timothy Thomas, 2001, Cincinnati

The big-city police departments in Los Angeles and New York have been under close watch both before and after these incidents, as they face the unique challenges and advantages of concentrated metropolitan areas. But perhaps an incident that most closely mirrors that in Ferguson is the 2001 shooting of Timothy Thomas by police that triggered riots in Cincinnati, Ohio. Thomas, a 19-year-old with an infant son, started to run when an officer approached him on the street outside a nightclub. The officer called in back-up, a chase was on, and shots were fired with almost no information about Thomas. Cops said they thought Thomas was reaching for a gun but none was ever found.

The outcomes of the Cincinnati collaborative agreement were pretty astounding

The officer in that case, too, was acquitted. But even before the verdict, community members responded to the shooting with intense riots and an economic boycott, exposing a history of racial tensions with police. Thomas was the 15th black man who died during a police confrontation in the six years before the riot. And by the time of Thomas’ death, the perception was that Cincinnati faced intractable tensions between citizens and police that couldn’t be fixed by yet another investigation or report. But public outrage along with federal intervention created the momentum for a different, expansive settlement in 2002 from litigation that started even before Thomas was killed. The pressure became so great that police stopped resisting, and started collaborating.

As a result of agreements involving several advocacy groups and the Department of Justice, officers were trained on how to choose less-lethal force, and how to deal with the mentally ill and those under the influence of drugs or alcohol. They even created a mental health response team. They were not just given Tasers, but also exhaustive training on when they could use them and how. If they used a Taser, they had to document their use. And if their record didn’t match what was being reported, an investigation would ensue. Cars were equipped with dash cameras. They took “community policing seriously,” doing walk-throughs of neighborhoods with residents, holding community meetings, and responding to community problems with nuanced solutions. Cincinatti’s police chief has so embraced the reforms in the Collaborative Agreement that he takes a copy everywhere he goes.

And one more thing. Police were actually held accountable. Mike Brickner, senior policy director of the ACLU of Ohio, said one of the persistent problems the city encountered was that a few bad actors were committing egregious acts again and again without punishment, and giving the entire department a bad name as a consequence. But after Thomas’ death, a Citizen Police Review Board was formed that seemed to actually have buy-in from the police department. Officers were disciplined, given new training, or fired. Police and particularly police unions had resisted the accountability mechanisms “tooth and nail” for years before Thomas’ death. But when public pressure became overwhelming, Brickner says even police unions fell in line. And in the end, many officers ended up liking the review mechanism, finding that it could be just as useful to exonerate an officer who had been wrongfully accused as to punish an officer for wrongdoing.

“I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but those riots were some of the best things that ever happened: They taught us who we are and what mattered,” Kathy Y. Wilson, who for years wrote a local column called “Your Negro Tour Guide,” told the Washington Post.

“The outcomes of the Cincinnati collaborative agreement were pretty astounding and we were really pleased with them,” Brickner said. But he cautions against any reform plan that pretends there is an easy fix. “I will not pretend that this is an easy process,” Brickner said. His advice to other cities: If it goes too smoothly, you’re probably not really instituting change. “It takes a lot of time and a lot of hard work and there will certainly be for anyone going through a process like this moments where it’s very difficult and very painful,” he said.

Last month, two Cincinnati officers shot Donyale Rowe to death after he was pulled over for failure to signal. Immediately after the incident, the police chief named the officers involved and published their performance reviews. He said Rowe had a gun, and he released video of the incident from the dash cam. No tension errupted.

“Even where there is a strong intervention and things have changed significantly, I think it’s unrealistic to say that there is never going to be another police problem or another issue that crops up,” he said. “But I think what has changed is that there are much fewer of them.” And when incidents do come up, “police also have the tools and the training and the mutual understanding of how to talk about these issues … so that they can be quickly navigated through and done in a way that communities can agree on and live with and that they don’t boil over in the way they dd in 2001.”

And police accountability remains one of the most sticky problems. A 2008 Cincinnati Enquirer review found that while 35 police officers were fired over a 20-year period, 19 of the 25 who appealed the decision to an arbitrator got their jobs back, with heavy backing from the police union. Many of the others who didn’t win faced criminal charges that made it “difficult … or impossible” for them to get their job back.


The city of Ferguson will have its own local reforms to consider, as the council has already passed several bills to establish a police review board, and set limits on excessive court fines and fees exposed after Brown’s death. If past experience is any indication, reforming the police department is possible over the course many years and many battles.

But nationally, problems persist. “This is a very systemic problem in just about every community throughout the United States,” Brickner said.

The mentality is that these lives in the ghetto are not to be valued.

And even in communities that have seen dramatic change, there are as many holes left to be filled as there have been reforms. One is the intransigent, incredible challenge of holding police accountable. Police unions exercise strong influence over many local boards that decide whether cops get to keep their jobs. Juries tend to side with police. And the law overwhelming favors the police. UC Irvine law school dean Erwin Chemerensky, who has long followed this issue, wrote after Brown’s death that “the officer who shot Michael Brown and the City of Ferguson will most likely never be held accountable in court” due to doctrines from the Supreme Court down that weigh against holding officers accountable.

Another is a culture that embraces guns. Police are given a lot of leeway to use deadly force, in many instances when the public perception is that other lesser measures might do. As CNN’s Mark O’Mara noted after Brown’s death, “Cops are doing the job we told them to do.”

Riots in Ferguson have also exposed to America the extreme militarization of police forces that has only grown since the past waves of police shootings. And the racism in the criminal justice system persists, both overtly, and implicitly, even as more whites than ever believe the criminal justice system is no longer biased.

But there are reasons to be hopeful. For one thing, criminal justice reform is increasingly becoming a bipartisan issue. Even Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) became one of a growing number of congressional Republicans who have called for criminal justice reform. Domanick said he was also encouraged that there was outrage at Ferguson’s police militarization across the political spectrum. For another, reform options exist that didn’t before, such as body cameras for police. In fact, it is the emergence of mobile recording devices that has exposed some of the recent violent incidents — and debunked any attempts by police to skew the facts.

In the case of Ferguson, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has announced he will initiate an investigation of the city’s “patterns and practices” in addition to the separate criminal investigation of the Brown case. In fact, Holder has taken on a new tone for the country’s top law enforcer that acknowledges the United States epidemic of discriminatory and overly punitive criminal punishment.

But underlying all of this is the segregation and oppression that was unveiled in Ferguson. A Washington Post investigation last week revealed that these underlying problems still persist in Cincinnati, meaning that while police were indeed reformed, fixing the racial tensions that existed in 2001 Cincinnati is “a job unfinished.” Even Cincinnati’s black police chief says he fears his own son’s encounters with the police.

“The cultural disconnect is very real; you have the weight of generations of abuse on African Americans,” Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell told the Washington Post after Brown’s death.

“[T]he mentality is that these lives in the ghetto are not to be valued,” added Domanick. “Policing and violence are only symptoms of this larger problem. We’re gonna have problems. But at least we’re starting to know now what works in terms of reducing crime short term and long term and what works in terms of community policing and good community relations.”